From minding cows to minding algorithms

Topics algorithms

Going through a day glancing constantly for messages on your mobile phones, devoutly watching movies on demand on your mobile phone, gleefully buying stuff on online shopping sites… These innocent and fun activities have a larger meaning: The arrival of the Information Age. The arrival of the Information Age is no longer an idle scholarly chatter, we are sliding into it. And doing that without fully understanding all that is in store for us as individuals or as members of human society. Except that, in India, our transition to the Information Age is going to happen while many other transitions are under way.

For example, for millions of Indians the current transition that they are going through is from running/assisting in running the family farm with meagre returns to a more predictable life with a fixed salary (an “office job”). The action to take for this transition is to get into a train and head for Bombay (read “nearest city”) and even if you have to stay in a “slum” and even if your wife has to clean toilets in some house, the regular monthly salary that you get as a shop assistant in the city, low as it may be, provides some peace. It’s a great relief from minding your cows all day long in the hope that someone will pay a decent price for the milk your cows give you or the wool that your sheep produce. Sometimes, after your third glass of arrack you wonder what your sarpanch grandfather would make of this (had he been alive), but that thought quickly fades as the arrack gets you into a happy mood in your Zopadpatti home.

Another large number of Indians, again in the tens of millions, are making the transition from sitting at the counter of the family kirana shop in a village, where customer footfall is ever decreasing, to a more financially secure one: Employed in a company as a salesman going from one prospective customer to another, being summarily thrown out by many, succeeding in making a sale occasionally, but happy in the knowledge that when the month-end comes, your fixed salary amount will get credited by your employer to your bank account.

Or move from a life where you father made a living, in your village, by reciting Sanskrit shlokas to ever diminishing numbers of fellow villagers to one in a city employed as an accountant in some business, where the pay is just about enough to allow you to remit a few hundred rupees a month to your ageing parents in the village.

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

While India is right in the middle of these transitions, another set of transitions is creeping up on us. For example, we are in the middle of a transition from a clerk/salesman-dominated middle, class-economy to one where the human role will be to “mind the algorithm”, a job not much different from “minding sheep” or “minding cows” or “minding a kirana store”, while the algorithm “grazes in the data fields”, just like cows and sheep graze in fields of grass.

But don’t worry. Just as to mind cows you don’t need a degree in veterinary science, to mind algorithms you don’t need a degree in computer science. And, the reasons you are employed to mind the algorithms are not much different from the reasons why you were employed for minding cows: Somebody vicious may steal your algorithm/cow, your algorithm/cow may wander into somebody else’s field/domain, your algorithm/cow may eat forbidden plants/data. The algorithm will decide which prospective customer to pitch what product to, engage in polite charming talk with the prospective customer appearing in its chatbot incarnation, and even closing the sales and collecting the money. No human salesman can match this level of skill, so sales jobs will fade out, but you still need humans to “mind” the algorithms.

Another set of algorithms that will need “minding” are the ones taking over the jobs of millions of Indians, shuffling of paper from an IN-tray to an OUT-tray all day long.

But we have handled such transitions before. After all, it took nearly half a century to move from earning a living from reciting Sanskrit shlokas for a living to shuffling papers from an IN-tray to an OUT-tray. Similarly, it took half a century to make the transition from buying and selling dal-chaval to buying and selling mutual funds and fixed deposits. How can you make the transition from praising the virtues of the mutual funds/fixed deposits your boss gives you to sell, to minding the algorithms that buy and sell mutual funds?

What education do Indian school children need so that when they finish Class 12 they are adept at one or the other aspect of participating in the world of algorithms: Either of creating algorithms (read “breeding”), or repairing broken algorithms (read “veterinary help”), or to supervise the algorithm at work (read “minding”)?

This is the question that worries me this Onam day on my annual one-week visit to my hometown Kannur as I sit by the seashore, which incidentally is about the same spot where Vasco da Gama showed up in 1498. Could anyone sitting in this same spot at that time have imagined that an apparently innocuous event would lead in stages to the Portuguese, then the French, the Dutch, and finally the English landing up here and colonising us for the next few hundred years?

Staring at the waves gently lapping on the rock-lined coast of Kannur, this Onam day, I wonder whether we have yet fully understood from the innocent instant messaging, online shopping, and online movie frolic all the challenges that lie ahead as we slide into the Information Age?
Ajit Balakrishnan ( is hard at work on a free textbook in 27 India languages that will introduce Machine Learning to Standard 8 Students in India.

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